adjusting our levels to each other

Photo by Alexey Ruban on Unsplash

unpolished thoughts 1/7/19

We all have our strengths and our weaknesses.

And our sensitivities.

For decades, I’ve been a careful curator of my sonic environment and taken considerable pride in it.

Too much pride perhaps.

I find out what my “highly refined appreciation of sound” is good for whenever I’m around the kind of person whose main drive is to “get things done” – which often feels to me like smashing things around.

Because, after all, sometimes it takes too long to thing about the sounds you are making.

(Insert my eye roll here and other grumpy emoticons.)

In my head, I’m not as subtle in expressing my annoyance. It’s more like, “Shut UP – you tone deaf #$@&%!”

But I’m a fool if I think I can truly say I’m the sensitive one and they are so insensitive. Because there are certainly those times when my focus is on speed and quiet is less important.

In fact, if the coffee in my veins has too much influence, I too may well feel imprisoned in any situation that requires a lot of soft-stepping. In those moments, I’m just as capable of anyone else of slamming the refrigerator door, or carelessly tossing clanging dishes into the sink.

So the more I’ve thought about it, it makes no sense to say that I’m the “quiet one” being disturbed by those other “loud ones.”

But there is also something different about my noise and the noise that you make in my vicinity.

When I do it, I can anticipate each sound I make and adjust for it. My brain is prepared for the incoming disturbances and so it isn’t disturbed.

It’s only your disturbance that disturbs me!

It’s as if we each had a little volume knob – just like on the stereo –  and we set it to just the right level for ourselves.

But suppose that after the song ends, when you aren’t looking, someone abruptly turns up the volume and changes the musical selection. The next sounds that arrive are much more than what you were prepared for.

Your friend is enjoying their favorite tune, but you just went into high alert.

If it sounds like I’m grumbling, well, yes – I certainly am.

Because it’s not as if I can move through the world and expect it to constantly adjust its levels to me.

In fact, the more I get to know this world, the more I understand that it’s my job to adjust myself. In fact, it’s the only way to experience joy in life.

That’s what is known in the biz as self-regulation.

I recently taught an online course called Finding Comfort In Your Own Skin. A lot of the class turned out to be quite uncomfortable for the dozen participants – including for me. We kept coming back, again and again, to our discomforts and looking at where they come from.


It turns out that the more we recognize the things that make us uncomfortable, the more we discover our own role in creating that discomfort. That’s the key to transforming the situation because it’s the only place where we actually have the opportunity to change something.

The stimuli keeps coming. If we’re not going to go meditate in a cave for the rest of time, there’s nothing we can do about that. But we can learn to become increasingly aware of that brief moment between stimulus and response, the moment before we act, when we are most capable of making a human choice.

As a Feldenkrais practitioner, my sensitivity is a gift, especially because I have trained myself to use it in a deliberate manner. When I touch the body of a person in chronic pain, I can give them a quality of feeling that they don’t otherwise know because of the difference in the levels of noise in our two systems is so great.

But before I discovered this work, I found myself in difficulty on many occasions because of my untrained sensitivity. In fact, I was told on numerous occasions that I was “hyper-sensitive”.

To me, the label felt colossally unfair.

How am I supposed to react when you do that?!

How dare you walk into the room that way, speaking to me so loudly and quickly without warning?!

Once in college, another student tapped me on the shoulder unexpectedly and I jumped so much that he asked me what was wrong with me.

He didn’t know that most nights in bed I would thrash and convulse for an hour or so before falling asleep, my system trying to release awkward unspent energies, all my levels at the wrong settings.

These spasms haunted me for years, but I never had them professionally examined because I had already diagnosed myself just like my classmate did: “there is something wrong with me.”

Luckily, these days, I have much greater skill in self-regulation and, for the most part, I am no longer disturbed by these unseen bolts of random excess electricity.

But there’s something similar that still happens to me in quiet settings for no apparent reason. Without warning I will begin to imagine a complete rupture of the environment, like an earthquake or a car suddenly driving through the wall and my body starts to tense, bracing for impact.

The violence of the disturbance remains mostly within the image though because I know recognize it as a cue to immediately re-connect again to my breathing and my relationship to the ground, to look around and observe the safety of my environment and tell myself that everything is ok.

I work at doing the same thing when I’m in the company of others, something that can feel jarring at times since I’m so used to being my only company.

Slowly I’ve learned this truth: that you didn’t actually mean to disturb me. You just might like to set your levels differently than I do.

You may be enjoying the sounds that disquiet me. Meanwhile, the silence I have so carefully tried to arrange might be deafening to your ears.

Still, we are here together.

We may be friends, family, lovers, co-workers, neighbors or just passersby on the street, but we all live in this same world where there are definite limits on how much any of us can set the levels perfectly to our own personal preferences.

But we can all practice self-regulation, continually learning to adjust our own levels more skillfully, including in relation to each other.

It’s a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, we need to get to know ourselves very well, so that we know how to create Goldilocks experiences for ourselves that allow us to feel supremely comfortable so we can listen deeply inside ourselves and hear what makes us tick.

On the other hand, we need to learn how to feel like Goldilocks when we’re out there in the big, bad world without being deaf to the experiences of the other people we meet. They’d like to have a little Goldilocks in their lives too, and if we ruin for them, they’ll end up ruining it for us too.

The key is learning to listen to our insides and the outside world at the same time, with an understanding that everyone around us faces the same multi-layered challenge.

Moshe Feldenkrais used to joke that his work was about helping people to find more comfort in their misery.

I think I probably retold to the participants of Finding Comfort In Your Own Skin at least a couple of times. Because hypersensitivity to every disturbance in the environment is one of the fastest ways to make yourself miserable, and I think this was part of what Feldenkrais was talking about.

But if you and I each begin to pay more attention to our comforts and discomforts; and if we learn to make a little room for moments when the porridge is a little too hot or the bed is a little too small, we can sometimes do a bit better than misery.

We might even enjoy some harmony.